Even Darwin had some misgivings about the reliability of human beliefs. He wrote, “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
Given unguided evolution, “Darwin’s Doubt” is a reasonable one. Even given unguided or blind evolution, it’s difficult to say how probable it is that creatures—even creatures like us—would ever develop true beliefs. In other words, given the blindness of evolution, and that its ultimate “goal” is merely the survival of the organism (or simply the propagation of its genetic code), a good case can be made that atheists find themselves in a situation very similar to Hume’s.
The Nobel Laureate and physicist Eugene Wigner echoed this sentiment: “Certainly it is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin’s process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess.” That is, atheists have a reason to doubt whether evolution would result in cognitive faculties that produce mostly true beliefs. And if so, then they have reason to withhold judgment on the reliability of their cognitive faculties. Like before, as in the case of Humean agnostics, this ignorance would, if atheists are consistent, spread to all of their other beliefs, including atheism and evolution. That is, because there’s no telling whether unguided evolution would fashion our cognitive faculties to produce mostly true beliefs, atheists who believe the standard evolutionary story must reserve judgment about whether any of their beliefs produced by these faculties are true. This includes the belief in the evolutionary story. Believing in unguided evolution comes built in with its very own reason not to believe it.
This will be an unwelcome surprise for atheists. To make things worse, this news comes after the heady intellectual satisfaction that Dawkins claims evolution provided for thoughtful unbelievers. The very story that promised to save atheists from Hume’s agnostic predicament has the same depressing ending.
It’s obviously difficult for us to imagine what the world would be like in such a case where we have the beliefs that we do and yet very few of them are true. This is, in part, because we strongly believe that our beliefs are true (presumably not all of them are, since to err is human—if we knew which of our beliefs were false, they would no longer be our beliefs).
Suppose you’re not convinced that we could survive without reliable belief-forming capabilities, without mostly true beliefs. Then, according to Plantinga, you have all the fixins for a nice argument in favor of God’s existence For perhaps you also think that—given evolution plus atheism—the probability is pretty low that we’d have faculties that produced mostly true beliefs. In other words, your view isn’t “who knows?” On the contrary, you think it’s unlikely that blind evolution has the skill set for manufacturing reliable cognitive mechanisms. And perhaps, like most of us, you think that we actually have reliable cognitive faculties and so actually have mostly true beliefs. If so, then you would be reasonable to conclude that atheism is pretty unlikely. Your argument, then, would go something like this: if atheism is true, then it’s unlikely that most of our beliefs are true; but most of our beliefs are true, therefore atheism is probably false.
Notice something else. The atheist naturally thinks that our belief in God is false. That’s just what atheists do. Nevertheless, most human beings have believed in a god of some sort, or at least in a supernatural realm. But suppose, for argument’s sake, that this widespread belief really is false, and that it merely provides survival benefits for humans, a coping mechanism of sorts. If so, then we would have additional evidence—on the atheist’s own terms—that evolution is more interested in useful beliefs than in true ones. Or, alternatively, if evolution really is concerned with true beliefs, then maybe the widespread belief in God would be a kind of “evolutionary” evidence for his existence.
You’ve got to wonder.
Mitch Stokes, A Shot of Faith: To the Head (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 44-45.